Academic's book prompts Japanese war apology

Tuesday, 23 April 2002

A book by University of Adelaide academic Dr Brian Victoria has prompted an apology by Japanese Zen Buddhists for their support of the Japanese military during World War ll.

The book, Zen at War (New York: Weatherhill Publishing), details how the Zen Buddhist establishment backed the imperial war effort, declaring it a "holy war", holding prayers for Japanese victory, and even donating fighter planes to the Japanese air force. Although published in English in 1997, the book appeared in Japanese translation for the first time only last year. Dr Victoria, a Senior Lecturer in the Centre for Asian Studies, said that in recent months three separate Zen groups in Japan had publicly admitted their wartime complicity. Most recently, he has received a copy of an apology by the Myoshinji branch of the Rinzai Zen school, citing his book as the catalyst.

It states, in part: "many Zen masters, beginning with our chief abbot, have strongly urged our sect to issue a statement of [war] repentance as quickly as possible. They felt that by doing so we would be able to determine the path we ought to follow in the future.

"it is also true that it was not until our sect was criticized by others that we were able to look squarely at the mistakes we committed in the past with regard to the outcaste class [in Japan]. This time, it was the publication of the book Zen to Sensoo (i.e. the Japanese edition of Zen at War) that provided the opportunity for us to address the issue of our war responsibility. It is truly a matter of regret that our sect has for such a long time been unable to seriously grapple with this issue."

Dr Victoria, who is a Soto Zen priest, first began researching Zen Buddhism's links with Japanese militarism while living in Japan in 1970.

"This is one of the relatively rare cases where an historian has been given the opportunity to help make history," he says. "It is a reminder that we academics are not people who sit in ivory towers but people who can make a difference. The latest apology is particularly significant because the Myoshinji branch is the largest of the Rinzai Zen sect's many branches in Japan, with more than 3,400 affiliated temples and 1.6 million adherents."


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